It was the first day of college. After the introduction speech, the principal asked us, ‘how many of you have an email address?’ In a crowd of 60, around 10 raised their hands, mine was not one of them. He then asked ‘how many have a computer at home?’ I did not move. The principal then started to lecture on how computers would revolutionize life with the help of internet and how email was going to be our new digital address. ‘What the hell was an email?’ I asked myself. ‘In the future’, he continued, ‘people who dont know about computers would be termed as illiterates and not merely the ones who are uneducated’. I had studied computers in my school – BASIC, LOGO & Lotus 123, never even seen a GUI, or an email. I quickly forgot what he said as soon as I stepped out. I was clueless. It was the year 2000.
A few days down the lane, then good friend of mine bought a desktop computer. Not only that, since his father worked in telecom department, he even had a dial-up internet connection (at discount)! He at once asked me to come home to show-off his new toy. And, I was very interested to know what computer was and what ‘internet’ was all about. He opened something called ‘Netscape navigator’, logged into123greetings.com and clicked on something with Britney Spears’ (yes, she was a rage then) face. After a few minutes of intermittent streaming, she popped onto the screen, slowly strutting towards me & blew a kiss and wished me “Happy Birthday”. ‘The future of greeting card’ my friend announced proudly. I stared at the screen with my mouth wide open, dumbstruck. It was so cool. And, the computer looked so scary. How intelligent do you need to be & how much talent do you need to have to handle a system of this capability? I looked at my friend and wondered when did he become intelligent suddenly? It was not for me, I told myself.
A few days into the year, my then girl friend asked me for my yahoo id. And, to her surprise, I didn’t have one. So, she took it onto herself to educate me and created my first email account (which I still use) in Hotmail (all my friends were in Yahoo, but I wanted to be different and creating an id in a site I had no friends was my way of differentiating myself from the crowd). Next, she proceeded to teach me how to use a messenger and chat rooms. But, I never got a hang of it so she decided to lead by example. In the lab, I would sit beside her like a school boy and observe her seamlessly move between chat rooms and surf the net. Occasionally she would show me some interesting ‘tech wizardry’ stuff, watch my reaction (usually wide eyed & open mouth) and burst of laughing. But, irrespective of all her help, I somehow never caught on with the trend of chatting with strangers & popping the ‘ASL’ question. Socializing was never my forte. Even email was something I wasn’t into. Neither did I login frequently to check my email (it was costly – Rs. 40 per hour) nor was there a need. After all, my friends hailed from the same locality and I would meet them everyday. No one would send me one. And anyway, all others were doing was subscribing to e-greeting cards. So, I quit logging onto the net.
One year down the lane, just before the dot-com bubble, when Java institues were opening in every lane, when the whole country was caught in ‘i20’ fever, I joined NIIT (a computer institue) following the footsteps of our seniors who said: ‘Just learn Java and the US consulate would throw open its gates to stamp your visa’. Java, they said, was our gateway out of India to the land of opportunity. Though the Java fever did not last long, it was here in this institue that I learned more about internet. No more staring at the internet with an embarrassing expression. But, before I could learn more, I had to discontinue the course due to financial constraints. And, very soon my knowledge of internet became obsolete.
I had to take a two year break to find myself and chart a course for the future. In this gap, the world had moved on: the internet I knew changed: Netscape navigator was gone, Yahoo was on the bridge of collapse, Google was the de facto search engine & Wikipedia had established itself as the new encyclopedia. I had to start new; and, I did. In the limited means I had, I started browsing the internet once a week in our neighborhood Satyam ‘Iway’ net centers. And, after a year or so, my grandmother seeing my interest, took pity and bought me my first computer – Zenith – full 3 years after I saw one in my friend’s house. I was thrilled. I remember doing a happy-dance. Connecting to internet via dial-up without any help was an achievement. But, I never really took advantage of Google/Wikipedia or the ‘n’ number of websites bursting with information. I used my system predominantly for (storing & playing) movies, music & casual surfing.
Two years down the lane, I joined MBA, and it was here that I really took to internet. I turned to Google to do research for my paper presentations. And, when I saw it pointed me to interesting sources, I read everything. My brain got hooked to ‘information gathering’. I would open Wikipedia for something and spend hours reading connecting articles. Lack of knowledge was a major drawback in my life and I set about rectifying it. Google became my friend & guide. It was in these years that I gave a jab at ‘socializing’ – via ‘Orkut’. The first ‘social networking’ site for most in India (Facebook was still years away). Internet soon became a very big part of my life. I wished I could take it everywhere with me.
I didn’t know my wish was going to come true very soon. In 2007 Steve Jobs made history announcing the iPhone. I remember watching him demonstrate it on our national news network. The whole world went crazy. Over the next two years, people transitioned from feature phones to ‘smart’ phones – touch screen, button less rectangular devices with the ability to connect to the internet. Smart phones became your style statement. I bought my first phone three years back and my first iPhone one year after that. Today I cannot imagine life without it. Addicted? Yes I am. But, I’ve seen my life improve just by being connected to internet – want to check the review of a movie before booking tickets? done. Check the price of a book before purchasing? done. Snap a pic and upload to Facebook? done. I always had an assistant to help me. I always had enough information to make a decision.
If I turn back and see, I realize it took me nearly 10 years for me to go online and take advantage of the new medium; for some it would seem to be an eternity. But, I don’t think I’m alone in here. Most of the folks from our generation share similar stories. We saw life per-internet & post-internet – kids moving from outdoor sports to indoor games, from slam books to Facebook, from libraries to online searches, from paper greeting cards to e-cards, from being alone to hyper connected, from paying bills standing in line to online, from public phone booths to cellphones, from libraries to online searches, from command line interfaces to graphical. Life got better as we embraced internet but, I wish certain things were different.
As we created more life on the net, my concerns related to privacy, safety, validity of content, addiction issues & love of tools (substitutes to actual relations) shot up.
Internet is written in ink. Whatever is online cannot be erased. Any mistake done offline could be forgotten with the passage of time, but, as more and more action is happening online, every mistake of ours is saved for posterity. We can never escape our pasts. Reputations can be made & tarnished in minutes.
It’s easy for stalkers to download our photos, find our addresses and track our every move (most of this data is uploaded by us). How safe are we?
Can we trust what’s on the net? How much of the content on Wikipedia is correct? We all know the story behind, ‘Sir’ Ravindra Jadeja fiasco. What if I base my research on such faulty data? Internet is a pot in which everyone puts in something. How much of that is ‘true’ against rumors?
Internet addiction is a recognized mental ailment in Korea & a rising concern in China? When was the last time you ‘unplugged’ yourself from internet? I constantly feel handicapped if I’m not connected to the net. Similar to Pavlov’s dogs, my mind jumps up in excitement whenever a new snippet of information comes my way. And, honestly, it gets tiring after some time. Constantly being connected to internet has killed the joy of getting ‘lost’.
Internet not only helped in increased connectedness but also made it easy for us to ignore human interaction. We are more comfortable wishing our friend on a social network than actually calling on him. When was the last time you spoke to the 200 odd “friends” we have on our social networks? The intent behind a social network might be right – a platform connecting all – a substitute to real connections when not possible. But, we’ve fallen in love with the substitute. We love to spend time on Facebook than actually meet our friends. We are in touch with them, we say to ourselves. But are we really?
Future is full of possibility. I’m very excited to see how internet further enhances lives. New gadgets harnessing internet’s power like Google glass, smart watches seem promising. The concept of ‘Internet of things’ looks interesting. But, as technology takes over life, it is very easy to forget why it was created in the first place and fall in love with it at the cost of relationships & experiences. If we only remember to use it responsibly it can greatly enhance the quality of our life by creating unique experiences we can all look forward to.